Advice for Journalists in the Age of Trump: 10 Helpful Primers


On Monday, Vanity Fair awarded its second-ever Hitchens Prize to Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, famously played by Liev Schreiber in last year’s Oscar-winning Spotlight. The prize, named after longtime Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens, goes to a journalist “whose work reflects a commitment to free expression, a depth of intellect, and an unwavering pursuit of the truth.”

On Wednesday, the magazine posted on its website the full transcript of Baron’s acceptance speech, in which the editor offers advice for journalists covering the Trump administration. It’s one of many such primers on staying objective and focused in the face of a president-elect who regularly posts false claims on his Twitter account, encourages the spread of misinformation, and gleefully attacks the press at every turn. Flavorwire has compiled ten helpful articles on how journalists should approach their jobs in the age of Trump.

By his own admission, Marty Baron prefers to “stay in the background — until a certain movie blew that idea to smithereens.” Baron’s loss of relative anonymity is our gain: His has become one of the clearest voices on the media’s role in the wake of Trump’s election. His speech on Monday was a bracing call to action and a reaffirmation of the concept of truth:

The truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, wrongdoing will persist.

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post‘s media columnist and former New York Times public editor, has many sharp insights for journalists covering the Trump administration, which she says will require “vastly different coverage” from other presidents. In this recent primer, Sullivan argues that journalism needs to be “reinvented,” and has a few ideas how:

Not everything Trump says or does deserves the same five-alarm level of outrage, or coverage. The president-elect’s tweets criticizing the cast at the Hamilton musical are one thing. The proposed appointment of Jeff Sessions, with his history of racist behavior, as attorney general is quite another. (Rule of thumb: Tweets should get less attention. Actions should get more. Deep digging, even if not by one’s own news organization, should get more still.)

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s post-election article in The New York Review of Books, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” quickly went viral when it was published on November 10. Gessen, who was born in Moscow and has long been a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, knows a thing or two about living and writing under an autocratic government. Though her piece is not directed at journalists specifically, her emphasis on continual resistance to the administration should be taken as a rallying cry for anyone covering national politics for the next four years:

Nongovernmental organizations, many of which are reeling at the moment, faced with a transition period in which there is no opening for their input, will grasp at chances to work with the new administration. This will be fruitless — damage cannot be minimized, much less reversed, when mobilization is the goal — but worse, it will be soul-destroying. In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case, much as President Obama did in his speech, that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.

Jared Malsin, Time‘s Middle East bureau chief, has spent the past several years reporting in Egypt and Turkey — two countries where freedom of the press is under attack. After Egypt’s military overthrew Mohamed Morsi in 2013, he writes, “journalists started spending a lot more time in jails and courtrooms.” He spoke to fellow reporters working in Egypt and Turkey for this piece on how American journalists can learn from their colleagues who report under authoritarian regimes:

You draw strength from your colleagues, who become like family. In Egypt, I took inspiration from the many Egyptian journalists who staked far more than me to document their country’s free fall from revolution to repression. They will take those risks, even after foreign correspondents leave. Some of the best are independent Egyptian sites like Mada Masr and indefatigable editors like Lina Atallah and writers like Hossam Bahgat. They soldier on, knowing they risk prison for their reporting. Like Hisham Kassem with his sharp retorts to the security men who harassed him, they refuse to give in to fear. You stand in awe of them.

Washington Post veteran Dana Priest, the winner of two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for her investigation into “black site” prisons, lays out eight steps journalists can take before Trump is sworn in for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Her short, punchy piece emphasizes the importance of putting pressure on the government now, before Trump takes his oath:

The new president may merit a brief honeymoon in governing while he figures out what his policies will be and how he will implement them. But we should not wait one nanosecond to lay out the unprecedented set of conflicts of interests he and his family bring to the presidency, to compare his campaign rhetoric with his post-election decisions, and to chronicle post-election moves made by state and local governments where authorities may feel emboldened to push the boundaries of their power and our laws.

Here’s another one from CJR, which has a devoted “Covering Trump” vertical on its website. Cultural critic Lee Siegel wrote a particularly sharp piece about how media outrage plays right into Trump’s hands (he even managed to avoid making a “tiny hands” joke; now that’s discipline). He describes how the Trump campaign took a page from leftist community organizer Saul Alinksy — a figure who fascinated Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News — and argues that access to President Trump might not be as important as some journalists think:

In the case of Trump, a lack of access could turn out to be the strongest motivator behind great and consequential journalism. Think of Gay Talese’s profile of Frank Sinatra in Esquire, for which he never met or spoke with Sinatra, and multiply the free play of unmasking and demystification in that piece one thousand times.

American-Israeli journalist Bernard Avishai, who lives in Jerusalem, wrote an insightful and depressing piece for the New Yorker‘s website on what Americans who oppose Trump can learn from the leftwing opposition in Israel, where the right has been in power for decades:

How does one counter the tautological idea that every new Palestinian attack is the result of Israel not being “strong” enough? Likud’s rhetoric — “Islamic extremism,” “existential threat” — has become common in the Israeli street. Since the early eighties, people on the left have admitted having a “rosh katan” — literally, a “small head” — keeping a low profile and focussing on their private lives, because public engagement seemed infuriating and futile. Few mainstream journalists, consumed as they are with the parties’ daily maneuvers, pose much of a challenge to this kind of rhetoric. Israel’s private media, aside from Haaretz, has become a Likud amplifier; public-radio journalists interview one Likud official after another, eager to prove they are close to the action. This tolerance of extremist views, the presumed expressions of a General Will, is subtle, and almost inevitable. Normalization of this kind can already be felt in Washington. Listen to NPR’s David Greene tensely interviewing the Republican blogger Chris Buskirk on Trump’s appointment of Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon to the White House staff. Greene was understandably straining not to be contentious; his guest, newly in demand, left the impression that Trump’s appointments were simply the President-elect’s version of a team of rivals.

Another piece from CJR (keep up the good work, guys!) fixes its gaze on a country not exactly known for political turmoil: Canada. Bryan Borzykowski spoke to the two journalists who broke the story of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s crack habit, Robyn Doolittle and Daniel Dale, for advice on how the media can approach another figure who regularly attacks the press and distorts information:

US reporters may not sue their president for libel, but they do need to be as transparent as possible in their reporting, says Doolittle. She learned that people generally have no idea how the press goes about reporting a story, so the more reporters can demystify the process, the better. Doolittle made a point of being available for media interviews, which she admits is weird for reporters, but she felt it was necessary to explain to people how and why she wrote what she did. Her papers also started publishing behind-the-scenes stories to better explain to readers just how many checks and balances there are before a story goes to print.

The Atlantic‘s James Fallows has written a handy set of guidelines for journalists tasked with combating Trump’s constant, reflexive lies. What to do when the president-elect constantly relays misinformation to his millions of Twitter followers, messages that are echoed throughout the news media in the hours, days, and weeks that follow? “The news media are not built for someone like this,” Fallows concludes. He has a few tips, with examples to illustrate his points:

Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst, The Washington Post and the LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.” The Post used the headline at the top of this item, and the one below on another fact-check report… By contrast, the version I’ve seen from the NYT takes a more “objective” tone — there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination. What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional — but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s [approach] is closer to calling things what they are.

Finally, longtime media reporter Jack Shafer has written his own set of rules for covering Trump over at Politico, in the wake of Trump’s baseless accusation that millions of illegal ballots were counted in an election he won. Shafer recommends restraint in the face of Trump’s crazy-making claims:

While it may be satisfying to rebut Trump’s crazy tweets with contesting tweets, journalists who do so might want to consider that they’re talking to themselves. As one who talks to himself incessantly, I understand the appeal of self-dialogue. But as my friend Jim Brady of Billy Penn tells me, the journalistic pack agrees on Trump’s preposterousness, and their unanimity has no effect on Trump supporters who dig Trump’s tweets whether they’re true or not. So, tweet all the refutations you want, my fellow journos, but you’re just spilling your seed on the ground unless you go to the heart of his trolling method.